Building Up to Camping Solo- Part One
I was trying to stay awake. The stars, as viewed through the clear, arid Moroccan sky, were prolific. I’d focus on a pair, reminding me of the eyes of the donkeys I’d recently passed, both absorbing and reflecting the light from my headlamp. A bright pair, and behind it another pair, only just a touch dimmer. I began to doze off, but shook myself awake, flipping the mesh of my bivy away from my face. I had to go deeper, past the next set of stars. I was tired, but I could also sleep during the day. Maybe an afternoon nap. The stars were more important.
I didn’t always feel this comfortable laying on the ground in a new environment in the dark. This blog post was supposed to discuss camping solo, and specifically, how to stay safe and choose where you sleep when you’re out on a lengthy adventure on your own. As I started outlining the basics of how to ease into it, I realized that what helped me embrace and enjoy solo camping was first discovering a love for moving through the darkness alone.
The sun sets and the party begins in Morocco.
I used to heckle my friends who’d tell me about their weekend bikepacking plans. Bikepacking seemed to combine only the worst parts of both camping and riding. Load down your bike until it’s too heavy to move quickly and simultaneously abandon all of the civilized comforts (like s’mores and bottles of whisky) that make camping fun. What psycho would do that to themselves?
This psycho. This psycho would discover that you don’t need a bottle when you have a flask, and that this sport, which combines riding bikes, eating snacks, and camping, allows you to carry everything you’d need to ride your mountain, road, or gravel bike for several days at a time. It allows you to go as far as you want, for as long as you want, filtering water, chowing through the food you carry, resupplying with Doritos and Snickers and Peach Red Bulls, and napping whenever and wherever the heck you want. I’ve now ridden, raced, and randomly camped solo in Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Chile, and at home here in Utah. Bikepacking is beautiful and freeing and so very full of gummy bears.
Before bikepacking dug its sticky paws into my soul, I hadn’t really ridden at night. I’d only solo camped if I could lock myself in my car. Of course, there had been toodles to the bar and back and some ill-fated daytime rides that went into triple overtime, but if it was dark outside, the goals were always a house and/or a hefeweizen.
Evening light on Kegety Pass in Kyrgyzstan.
The solo aspect of bikepacking or thru-hiking or ultra running certainly isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. But, I know that many of you would like to try a multi-day trip or race on your own and will need to take that first step toward spending the night alone under the stars. Sure, you can plan your trip so that you are camping by the time the sun goes down and you don’t start riding again until the sun comes up, but remember how you’re by yourself and you couldn’t fit more marshmallows for the s’mores in your pack?
No matter where you live, you likely have a favorite riding spot, or can head to one with some friends. You don’t have to start off riding at night by yourself, but at some point, you’ll need to make the jump. Riding somewhere you know well and have positive associations is a great way to start.
There are a lot of benefits to riding at night, which started to become clear as I spent more time in the woods in the dark. When it’s hot during the day, it’s often super pleasant to friggin’ chilly when the sun sets–and you don’t have to worry about reapplying sunscreen. Though I thought I’d be scared of the critters who come out to play at night, I learned that most really don’t care about a random girl pedaling by. I've mostly seen and heard insects, birds, and frogs. There are certainly places where I’ve sung loudly to announce my presence to the local kittens, but overall, there’s an unmatched tranquility in the mountains, desert, forest, and even in many towns while the majority of our population cuddles up under their comforters.
Finding happiness in night riding has made choosing places to snooze less stressful for me, because I’m already so stoked to be out there. Embracing the quiet and the dark makes it easier to close my eyes, and riding right up until I’m just too tired to keep riding means I’m not awake and wishing for more whisky or s’mores.
Here are some tips for how to become comfortable riding or hiking or running at night so by the time you get into that bivy (which I’ll discuss more next time), you can barely stay awake to stare at the stars:
Make a plan:
Do your first night outing with a friend and on a familiar route. Practice using your lights and GPS during the day (yes, lights too) so your gear is also familiar.
Keep the first solo trip short and on that familiar route. Start during daylight and end in the dark. Do the same route again, but start later when it’s darker. You don’t have to worry about camping yet, and you don’t have to go every night. Stay out just long enough to relax and find joy in being out there.
Gradually lengthen your outings and start to branch onto new routes.
There’s no need to force yourself to go anywhere you don’t feel comfortable.Consider carrying pepper spray, a whistle, and a first aid kit. You never want to use them, but you can’t use what you don’t have. Always plan your routes in advance, let others know what you’re up to, and give an estimated return time.
A midnight trail snack in the Wasatch Mountains.
Night Moves Necessities
GPS - It’s easy to miss turns in the dark, even when you know trails well. Load your route on your GPS and utilize the missed-turn alarms.
Phone - Sometimes you need to phone and friend, and that’s OK! Always tell someone your plans. Trackers like a SPOT or Garmin InReach are great tools for areas with unreliable cell service.
Lights - Plural for riding. A helmet-mounted light illuminates where you look, so if Sasquatch is rustling in the bushes, you’ll actually get to see him. A handlebar- or fork-mounted light provides additional trail visibility. Having 2 lights also keeps you from getting stuck if one dies.
USB lights don’t last as long as battery-powered, but you can charge on the go. High-powered mountain bike lights are great, but if you’re out for more than one night, they’re heavy and take a while to charge.
Bikepackers are notorious for affixing regular headlamps to helmets, and options abound. And don’t forget a red rear light for any time you might encounter traffic.
Clear or Low-Light Lenses - Some people are fine without glasses at night. I can’t handle it. From bugs to dust to low-hanging leaves, I always wear eye protection when I’m riding.
Layers - You’ll get hot and then you’ll get cold and then you’ll get hot again. Layers, vents, and wicking fabric all help to keep you dry and comfy. And that applies to gloves too!
Hydration and Snacks - Just because it’s dark out doesn’t mean you aren’t burning through fluids and calories. Keep it snacky and remind yourself to drink–you’ll keep your energy and stoke levels high too!
Jackie Baker is an avid skier, just waiting for another classic Wasatch powder day. When not on snow, she likes to ride her bike long distances in remote places. Visit her Instagram profile, @ohjaybay, to see where she's riding and what snacks she's packing.
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